After a lull during Covid, there has been a spike in reported cases of suicides and accidents involving students from private coaching centres. This has put the spotlight on the sweatshop-like conditions and high-pressure environment that students endure at these institutes, which supposedly prepare them for competitive exams such as IIT Joint Entrance Exam, National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) and UPSC with improbable odds of success. Despite the Supreme Court and various panels pushing for reforms, nothing seems to have changed. The Centre, perhaps , cannot be faulted for trying to lay down minimum standards for this industry.

The latest guidelines strive to establish basic regulatory oversight over private coaching centres with over 50 students, by requiring them to register with a competent authority. They will be barred from enrolling students below 16 years of age or recruiting faculty without minimum qualifications and must charge a ‘fair and reasonable’ fee. They have also been asked to allocate a minimum of 1 square metre per student, adhere to building safety codes and avoid classes that exceed five hours a day. While such norms are unexceptionable, the question is whether the States will have the political will to enforce them. They will have to put in place a competent authority and system of inspections suggested by the guidelines.

The Centre, on its part, needs to take a look at why entrance exams such as the IIT-JEE or NEET conducted by the National Testing Agency test candidates on concepts that are outside the CBSE and ICSE syllabus, so that even students who ace their Board exams cannot make the cut. The National Education Policy 2020 had many useful suggestions to reform the Board exam system and obviate the need for private coaching, which can be equally applied to common entrance tests. This included allowing the student to choose subjects of her interest for the exam, designing questions to test conceptual understanding rather than rote learning and having subject-wise exams, instead of a single high-stakes one.

A large part of the blame for subjecting children barely in their teens to this stress, must rest on parents. Parents do not even try to gauge their wards’ aptitude or interests, before pushing them at an early age into a rat-race that locks them into at least four-five years of intensive study and no free time, just to clear an entrance exam. With less than 1 per cent of the 20 lakh JEE and NEET aspirants each year securing seats in government colleges, 99 per cent are left disillusioned. Parents need to wake up to the fact that with the advent of technologies like AI, IT services and the government are unlikely to offer many job openings. Young Indians must be encouraged to pivot towards skills that can be used in up-and-coming sectors such as fintech, Global Capability Centres and financial services. Above all, they deserve a decent, rounded education that improves their cognitive skills so they can negotiate their own future.